Health and Happiness

Reading, writing and aerobics: How a popular Indy school uses movement to help kids learn

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Indianapolis Public Schools SUPER School 19 has a focus on fitness.

The ceiling of Principal Aleicha Ostler’s office in School 19 often vibrates, as small feet clamor and stomp above her head.

Ostler’s office isn’t below the gym or a busy hallway, but the classroom above her is seldom quiet. That’s because nearly every class at School 19 has physical activity built into the day, with students walking, dancing and stomping as they study English, math and history.

An elementary and middle school southeast of downtown, School 19 — known in Indianapolis as the SUPER school — is among the most popular magnet schools in the city. Then again, it’s a rare breed: a magnet program focused on health and physical activity at a time when some schools prohibit students from moving during class.

“Here it’s encouraged,” Ostler said. “When they are sitting on a yoga ball, they can rock, they can bounce. They are not told to stop.”

In addition to yoga balls in every classroom, the school has standing desks and exercise equipment students can use during class — such as pedals under desks, stools that spin and child-size ellipticals.

Indianapolis Public Schools SUPER School 19.
PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Indianapolis Public Schools SUPER School 19.

On a Monday afternoon, the students in one classroom chanted and stomped their feet to music as they counted by seven. Down the hall, seventh graders walked to each side of their social studies class for a debate about whether it’s a “big deal” when football players don’t stand for the national anthem.

In a kindergarten classroom, the teacher led his students in physical movements as they spelled out words, touching his hands to his head, waist and feet for each letter.

“They are just very simple strategies,” said Ostler, who has been principal of School 19 for eight years.

It’s an approach that has proven popular with families. The magnet program is open to children from across the district, and it commonly attracts more students than it can serve — particularly for middle school, which sometimes has more than 100 students on the waitlist, Ostler said.

Yet the little known program ignited controversy last month, when the IPS administration revealed a proposal to convert School 43 to a SUPER school without consulting community leaders. After receiving a rebuke from board member Kelly Bentley, the district retracted the plan. The future of School 43 is still undecided, however, and the school could still convert to a magnet with a health and physical activity focus.

If that happens, School 43’s leaders will be able to use the lessons that School 19 learned as it ramped up its fitness focus. The school added fitness courses on a trial basis after a district official suggested that strategy for combatting obesity, and the pilot was so successful that it expanded to the whole school about five years ago.

In addition to adding movement throughout the day, the school added two extra physical education teachers. Just as academic teachers integrate movement into their classes, physical education teachers also work with students on academic skills. For example, an action-based learning class, teacher Kim Ward, will have students bounce on the trampoline while they practice reading words by sight, she said.

Indianapolis Public Schools SUPER School 19.
PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Indianapolis Public Schools SUPER School 19.

The school has cooking classes to help students learn to eat healthfully and the school doesn’t allow pizza parties or sweet snacks like birthday cupcakes. Instead, students are encouraged to bring in treats like fruit.

When students are more physically active, research suggests they are better at complex cognition — such as problem solving and remembering what they learn — and do better in school, said Amanda Szabo-Reed, a researcher at the University of Kansas Medical Center who recently summarized existing studies on activity and learning. There’s also evidence that students are better at focusing on tasks after moving, she said.

But research is not clear on whether there are benefits to combining movement and school work — something that Ostler and others at the school said is crucial to the school’s vision.

“There isn’t definitive research out there to say ‘it’s better to do your times tables while doing jumping jacks than to just do jumping jacks,’ ” Szabo-Reed said.

The practical benefits to combining movement and academics are real: Students at School 19 spend a lot more time being physically active than students at schools where the only opportunity for exercise is during a brief recess or gym class.

Comparing test scores over time doesn’t answer the question of whether the fitness program is boosting academic performance, Ostler said, because the student population has changed so much since School 19 became a magnet school.

But the school’s own measurements of students’ fitness have found gains every year, according to Ostler. And teachers say they see another benefit to moving more in class: Students are happier and more engaged during the day.

Megan Burt, an interventionist at School 19, was a first-grade teacher when the magnet program started. She said that students used to get bored in class, resting their heads on their hands. Now, they are more excited about coming to school and rarely seem disinterested.

“It’s hard to teach a group of kids who are just sitting there with their heads on their hands, bored, because then you start to get bored,” she said. “It’s exciting to see kids so excited about school.”

Q and A

Former Success Academy lawyer hoping to start own charter network wants to ‘take it to the next level’

As the former top lawyer for Success Academy, Emily Kim had a hand in almost every aspect of New York City’s largest and most controversial charter-school network — from negotiating lunch times for schools in shared buildings to defending Success in court.

After spending six years with Success, Kim is setting off to launch her own charter network with locations in Manhattan’s District 6, which includes Inwood and Washington Heights, and the Bronx’s District 12, which includes the south and central Bronx. Called Zeta Charter Schools, she hopes to open in 2018.

PHOTO: Photo courtesy of Emily Kim
Emily Kim

Kim is still a big believer in Success — two of her children go there, and she praised its lightening-rod leader, Eva Moskowitz, as “brilliant” — but she thinks she has something different to offer.

“I chose the best schools possible for my own children,” she said during a recent interview with Chalkbeat near her home on the Upper West Side, “but I’m still going to innovate and take it to the next level.”

The school’s co-founders — Jessica Stein and Meghan Mackay — also have ties to Success, as do several board members listed in the school’s charter application. (One of the board members, Jenny Sedlis, is a Success co-founder and director of the pro-charter advocacy group, StudentsFirstNY.)

But Kim’s vision also seems tailored to avoid some of the usual critiques of charter schools, including that they rely on harsh discipline policies. By contrast, her plan for Zeta calls for limiting the use of suspensions. She also wants her schools to be diverse, though she admits that will be difficult in residentially segregated areas like the Bronx.

A mother of three, Kim has taught in classrooms in New York City, Long Island and even West Africa. She worked on special education issues in Philadelphia district schools before heading to law school at Temple and Columbia. While working as a corporate litigator, she took on a case pro-bono for Success — and was soon offered a job as the network’s first general counsel.

Below are edited highlights from our interview with Kim earlier this month where she described how her experience as an Asian-American growing up in Iowa shaped her views on school segregation, why she believes high-stakes tests are important, and what role she sees for charter schools like hers.

Kim talked about sending her son to Success:

My child was 4 years old when all of this kind of unfolded. The first school I visited was Eva’s school, Harlem 4.

… I was so astounded by what I saw — which is the energy of the teachers. Just the level of dedication, commitment, the joy and energy of their teachers — I was blown away.

Then Eva gave a talk at the end. She was clearly a hard-driving, almost in a sense, from my perspective then, a business person. So I thought, “That’s the type of person who should be running schools.”

What’s your role going to be as you launch your own charter schools?

I’ll be the CEO. I want to take all of the great things that I saw at Success and at other schools and — like in any other enterprise — I want to take the best of the best, and I want to implement it.

And then I want to work on implementing some of the ideas that I have as well.

What’s your goal for your schools?

The number one goal is to just create additional education opportunities. As a parent, I feel this very strongly: No parent should have to send their child to a school that is not a good school.

… Our schools are going to prepare kids for the tests, and the reason is that tests are access to power. And whether you like it or not, if you want to go to college — to a good college — if you want to go to law school like I did, you take the SATs. You take the LSAT. You have to do a good job.

How are you going to measure your schools’ success?

Academic outcomes are first and foremost because truly, if I can’t hit the academic outcomes, there’s no point. I’m wasting everybody’s time and I don’t want to do that. That’s number one.

… We’re looking at going backward from very rigorous high school and college curricula, and working backwards from there. So that’s our vision when we’re establishing our schools. What do kids need to be successful in college?

And it’s not just the testing outcomes, but it’s also the soft skills that kids need in order to get there. Kids need to be able to self-regulate, and that’s got to start in elementary school, in order to be successful in middle school.

On what her schools will look like:

One of the most important elements of our school design is going to be technology.

We’re still in early days, but I’m visiting many schools across the nation that are doing things that are very exciting in technology. I’m also going to be looking in the private sector to understand what are the skills that kids need to actually be innovators. I’d love if one of our students were able to invent an app that made a difference in the world.

Many New York City schools, district and charter alike, are highly segregated by race and class. Kim spoke about the city’s segregation:

In New York City, with the exception of Success Academy and other high-performing schools, you can go to the playground and look at the skin of the children who are playing there or look around the neighborhood and the socioeconomic status of the neighborhood, and you’ll know the quality of the school. It’s a terrible, terrible situation. And that’s 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education.

And how her own background informs her views on the issue:

I grew up in Iowa. I was one of the very few students who looked like me. My dad was a math professor. There were very few African Americans, few Hispanics, and very few Asians. That was hard in a lot of ways in that I grew up with a lot of teasing and whatnot. But I also was forced to navigate a world that I didn’t understand from my own experience.

… I have the perspective that it shouldn’t [just] be the case that minorities are integrating into the larger majority population. The majority population also has to integrate themselves in the minority enclaves. As long as we have this idea that it has to go one way only, that’s perpetuating the problem.

Have the city’s charter schools done enough when it comes to integration?

… It’s just so challenging for charters because honestly, opponents of charters use the segregation idea as another weapon against charters in terms of why they’re not serving the greater good — because they’re segregated.

Well, they’re segregated because they went into areas that were low income. Unfortunately, those kids weren’t getting a good education.

So what should the mission of charter schools be?

Charter schools were largely, originally intended to bring options to children who didn’t have them — so that would be low-income [students]. That’s not really my vision of charter schools. I think that charter schools are places where innovation can happen.

… I would love for what we learn through our [research-and-development] approach to be implemented at district schools. I’m very interested in district reform. I think there are a lot of challenges to district reform, but we’d love to come up with solutions that can be applied in other contexts.

Kim explained her decision to leave Success and start her own schools:

Staying with Success surely would have been a very rich experience, but I also thought I wanted to build something and I had some ideas.

… It was a really hard decision. But I’m really glad I did and every day I’ve made that decision, I feel like I’ve made the right decision.

I guess it will be answered once I have the schools up and running. If they’re doing well, then I’ll have my answer.

Not long for this world

Denver teen pregnancy prevention organization to close its doors at the end of the year

PHOTO: freestocks.org

A Denver-based nonprofit focused on teen pregnancy prevention and youth sexual health will close its doors at the end of 2017 after losing two major grants.

Andrea Miller, executive director of Colorado Youth Matter, announced the news in an email to supporters Monday afternoon.

The organization, begun in the 1980s as a volunteer-run group, provides teacher training and assistance in picking sex education curricula for 10 to 25 Colorado school district a year.

Miller said she’s hopeful other organizations will pick up where Colorado Youth Matter leaves off — possibly RMC Health, the Responsible Sex Education Institute of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains or the state-run Colorado Sexual Health Initiative.

Colorado Youth Matter’s biggest financial hit came in July when federal officials announced the end of a major teen pregnancy prevention grant mid-way through the five-year grant cycle. That funding made up three-quarters of Colorado Youth Matter’s $1 million annual budget.

“It feels like we’re getting cut off at the knees,” Miller said.

About the same time, the organization lost a family foundation grant that made up another 10 percent of its budget.

Miller, who took the helm of the organization just 10 months ago, said one of her primary goals was to diversify funding, but there wasn’t enough time.

Miller said with a variety of factors playing into the state’s teen pregnancy rates, which have been at record lows in recent years, it’s hard to say what the impact of the organization’s dissolution will be.

She said Colorado Youth Matter has worked successfully with school districts with different political leanings to find the right policies and resources to address the sexual health of their students.

“We have been masters at meeting the school districts where they are,” she said.